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Review: World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever

My Interest

I devoured Kitchen Confidential when it came out, but oddly, I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of any of Anthony (“Tony”) Bourdain’s tv shows–I prefer reading about food and travel (and, until last week when my daughter gave me one) I do not own a tv. (I occasionally watch online though). After reading this book, I doubt I’ll go in search of any of Boudain’s tv shows, but I would be I might read more of his word. His style is not mine. It’s more Bobby Knight than I’d like–especially around food. But he certainly knew good food and exciting travel.

The Story

At the time of his death in 2018, Bourdain and his “lieutenant,” Laurie Woolever, were at work on the project of telling about people, places, and most importantly, food he had encountered over his twenty years of making travel and food tv programs. Unfortunately, they only got to have that one meeting. Tony ended his life and left Laurie with the idea to finish the project. Instead of Tony writing about places and experiences he’d loved, friends, coworkers, and relatives have contributed prose and memories. Tony’s words, drawn from his television shows and writing, make up the balance of the book.

In this world tour, I enjoyed all of his stops, but I was especially drawn to two places–the first of which is Salvador in Brazil. I was taken in by the interesting sound of the taste of a caipirinhas [a lime juice-based cocktail with sugar cane “spirits”] and for the acaraje. What’s not to like about this:

“[A] paste a batter, a falafel-like wad of smushed-up black-eyed peas, seasoned with ground dried shrimp and onions, deep-friend till crispy and golden, in some chili-spiked dende oil [red palm oil]. On top you got your catapa which is, sort of, a shrimp curry paste, and your tomato salad, your friend shrimp, your cararao frito. A must.”

As Bourdain points out in his tv show [transcript] the slave trade was very big in Brazil. You can certainly tell that just from the description above of the acaraje. Black-eyed peas [“cowpeas” in some parts of Africa], red palm oil, dried shrimp? How much more West African can you get? But you are eating it in South America. Love that whole picture. Wash it down with a caiprinhas. which to me evokes memories of Malwai and Cathay, a sugar cane “spirit” that could knock over a Teamster with its kick.

The second most compelling portrait was of Barcelona:

Outside of Asia, this is it: the best and most exciting place to it in the world.”

That’s a pretty bold statement even for as bold a guy as Tony was.

“The simple, good things of Spain that most Spaniards see as a birthright…’How can ham be this good?! How can something that comes in a can be that terrific. Simple things–an anchovy, an olive, a piece of cheese. Really really simple things, the little things that you see every day here–that’s what’s cool about Spain.'”

I love everything about this statement–simple food that lends itself to daily life, to visiting with friends. Food that fills you up but doesn’t weigh you down. Sign me up!

My Thoughts

There was no place in this book I wouldn’t want to see and experience. I must admit, though, that shark’s live and various types of tripe do nothing to my taste bud, but do make my gag reflex kick in. Ok, so I’m not as adventurous as Tony–not many of us are. But to eat my way through all the versions of wonderful Piri-Piri chicken in Mozambique, or sample street foods in India or Singapore. Those would certainly be amazing meals.

As for the book–it isn’t nice to criticize a posthumously published book. But, this, in essence, was a copy-and-paste of a dead man’s tv orations, padded out with words from a woman who was his assistant and with whom he wrote a cookbook. While Laurie Woolever’s prose was wonderfully descriptive and does set the scene well, I must say I was underwhelmed by this repackaging of Tony. When Laurie was asking herself if the world really needed this book, she should have listened to her gut saying, “Probably not.” Tony’s vision for the book would have been much better as it would have been populated with his planned essays on places, food, experiences, and more. Bourdain’s larger-than-life personality does well on the tv screen. Transcribing those words spoke, shouted, or muttered into the camera in a specific context, is just not great reading. Nonetheless, it is still a decent addition to contemporary travel literature for those who want a super-quick read. [“How thoroughly passive-aggressive can she be?” I hear you asking! LOL]

My Verdict

3.0

World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever

 

 

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Review: Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig

My Interest

I’ve always wondered “what would I have done?” about both World War I and World War II. I like to think I’d have signed up and served in some sort of uniform. This story, then, was almost a personal fantasy of “What if?” for me.

The real Smith College Relief Unit (image source)

The Story

Based on the real-life group of Smith College graduates who served in France helping near or at the front lines, this fictionalized account of their lives focuses on Kate, a scholarship girl [why, oh why does every such person come from a “hardscrabble” existence?] and Emmie, the wealthy heiress, daughter of the formidable Mrs. Livingston Van Alden and her relative, Julia a doctor (and very Eleanor Roosevelt-ish in height, and teeth). 15 other Smithies, as they were known for their degrees from the prestigious Seven Sisters (women’s college version of the Ivy League back in single-sex days) arrive in France in new uniforms, filled with idealism, and then realize they must put their trucks together, sleep in cellars and, well, get on with the work to be done.

Of the generation who founded the Junior League and did good works in tenements and Settlement Houses in New York, Chicago, and other cities, these women really were trailblazers. They pretty much put social work on the map. Julia, a doctor who fought for her education to escape her privileged societal position, and Emmie who chafed at being Mrs. Van Alden’s daughter were typical of the society girls of their era who were “over it” as we’d say today and wanted “more.” Kate, tricked into coming by Emmie, has what today would be called “leadership” skills, but back then was just seen as a little bossy.

While the ladies work tirelessly helping the villagers reclaim their homes and lives stolen by the first battle of the Somme, the second battle is gearing up (but they don’t know that, of course). Helping with food, health care, education, entertainment, gardens, and livestock, the Smith Unit brings hope and practical assistance to the war-ravaged area. Each woman driving a truck or her accompanying Smith associates form bonds with the villagers, find a little romance, and learn things about their own strength that no modern-day corporate trust exercise or MBA program could hope to teach.

1916 Ford Jitney from Wikipedia Commons

My Thoughts

I loved the ways Emmie and Kate mature and find their strengths. That was very well done. While I did roll my eyes at Julia’s pc moment, it too was appropriately told and dealt with in the manner of 1914 and not of today. I do not like it when historical fiction goes off into modern-day thought and happily, Willig is a much better author than that. I was also thrilled beyond measure that this was told in chronological order, with memories here and there, and not in the now-overused dual timeline and a cheesy “Oh, look  Old Aunt Gerty’s scrapbook…if it could only talk…the tales it would tell…” storyline [is this a “trope”?]. Thank you, Ms. Willig, for skipping that garbage and telling us a great story instead. I wish actually hope there will be a sequel–I would love to hear about the rest of the fictional lives of Kate, Emmie, and Julia, but if not, I am glad to learn from the well-done author’s notes on the true story that a nonfiction book is in the works on the real Smith Unit. I will buy that the minute it is avaiable.

I loved the story, but there was one huge, annoying problem–the lack of an editor. Even a bestselling author needs one. The phrase “meant to” appeared on nearly every page of the book. It should have been the subtitle of the book. The phrase was ubiquitous! Never did she substitute “ought to” or “should have” or “are to be” or anything else. The first “ought to” finally came way into the book–I cheered. Then suddenly one chapter (a re-write, perhaps?) overused “ought to” before “meant to” returned. UGH UGH UGH! Spellcheck is not an editor. Someone should have called her out on this and made her fix it. The story is so good! The characters as deep as they get in this level of fiction, and the actions were believable, but the reader is bludgeoned to death with the words “meant to.” I’ve also never encountered a single America of any age (even back to my Grandmother born in 1904) “haring off” somewhere. Hares–rabbits just don’t “inform” or movements. That appears at least twice.

My verdict

4.0

Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig

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Run for the Roses: New Nonfiction Horse Racing Books for Derby Week!

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The Run for tee Roses, aka The Kentucky Derby, IS America’s horse race. People who never give horse racing a thought will watch the brief race on t.v. In Louisville, the home of Churchill Downs where the race is held, parties are held with mint juleps, Hot Brown sandwiches, Derby Pie, and other goodies each year (see this post for more on the special foods). It’s the one day in America when a lady’s hat matters! Except for the First Lady on Inauguration Day, I can’t think of another day on which American ladies put on a hat anymore.

Most Americans can name Secretariat and Seabiscuit thanks to the popular books/movies, and possibly still Man O’War and a few others, but there is more to horse racing than just the Derby [pronounced Der-bee here]. You can read about those books in the other post (here’s another link to it). Horse racing is a popular sport in many parts of the world. While I am giving some books today on American horse racing, others will be from around the world. Place your bets and enjoy the races!

The Books

The Ones To Pre-Order

The Triple Crown winner, those horses who’ve won the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, all in one season, are among the world’s greatest athletes. This book, due out in August, tells their stories. The Lucky Thirteen: The Winners of America’s Triple Crown of Horse Racing by Edward Bowen, can be pre-ordered now.

“An exploration of living and working at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans comprising photography, interviews, and personal correspondence of jockeys, horse groomers, trainers, and other key backside players.” (Amazon). This book was scheduled to release on April 1, 2021, but has not yet appeared. The Horses Pulled Me Back To Them: Life On The Backside Of The New Orleans Fair Grounds by Aubrey Dawne Edwards, Jay Addison, and Frank Bernis.

The New One

Newly out in April, author Nicholson returns to horse racing to look at “Zev,” a horse billed as “racing for America.” This book looks at the lives of the major players in the race, including the scandalous and even criminal background of Zev’s owner. Racing for America by James C. Nicholason. See Nicholson’s older book, Never Say Die. It tells the story of the Kentucky-bred horse who won the 1954 Epson Derby.

When I read the blurb on this one, I immediately added it to my TBR: “Czechoslovakia, October 1937. Vast crowds have gathered to watch the threatened nation’s most prestigious sporting contest: the Grand Pardubice steeplechase. Notoriously dangerous, the race is considered the ultimate test of manhood and fighting spirit. The Nazis have sent elite SS officers to crush the “subhuman Slavs.” The local cavalry officers have no hope of stopping them. But there is one other contestant: a countess riding a little golden mare…” (Amazon).  Unbreakable: The Woman Who Defied the Nazis in the World’s Most Dangerous Horse Race by Richard Askwith.

The Mongol Derby, a horse race composed of 25 wild ponies competing over approximately 621 miles (i.e. 1,000 kilometers) sounds undoable. But the author of Rough Magic set out to ride it–at age 19! Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer.

Jim Crow drove most of the African American jockeys and trainers out of American horse racing. This book tells the story of the “hidden” aspects of Kentucky Derby history.  Hidden History of Horse Racing in Kentucky by Foster Ockerman Jr.

Do you know of other new nonfiction books related in any way to horse racing? Leave me a comment or a link to your post.

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Daphne du Maurier Week, May 10-16, 2021

Thank you to Heavenali for again hosting Daphne du Maurier week. May 13 is Daphne’s birthday! I look forward to participating.

What I’ve already read

I’m not a fan of this cover, but The King’s General is my all-time favorite Du Maurier (so far). It’s currently on sale for $1.99 for Kindle in the USA.

 

I miss unique book covers. Branding an author can be too blah–this one clearly illustrates that. The House on the Strand is my most recently read novel by Daphne.

 

As tie-in covers go, this one isn’t that bad. Rebecca is, of course, an amazing read. Laurence Olivier was pretty amazing in the movie version, even though there are changes to the story. I’ve not made it through any of the more recent film versions.

 

My Cousin Rachel was a good read, though I, for once, predicted something that happened.

Also:

I read and reviewed this biography of Dear Old Daph: Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay

 

What I Will Likely Read

 

These are the two I own–both are languishing on my Kindle. I’ve included Loving Spirit in my list for a few Classics Club Spins, but the correct number was never called. So, it will be one of these two unless I can find an audio of another that I haven’t read. I seem to be doing best with audio at the moment but have started on Jamaica Inn too slowly to finish it for the 1936 Club week.

The Extras

 

So many choices! I have these two lovely books above and more (see below) on my Kindle to dip into during the week as well. Below are the “extras” to choose from on my Kindle.

Are you a Daphne fan? Are you joining in? Leave me a comment with your favorite of her books or a link to your own Daphne Week post.

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Dewey’s 24-Hour Almost a Bust-a-thon Readathon!

The readathon is over! I did not get to read last night because it fell the night before the paper from hell was due! I was up until midnight working on that. But, I needed to distress to go to sleep, so I listened for 30 minutes to this audio from Net Galley–Food Americana by David Page.

This morning I had to work on the other project that was due. So, this afternoon was my only long “reading” slot. I got 3 hours of audio in the car going to meet up with friends. I inevitably have plans I want to keep on the day of any readathon. Kind of Murphy’s Law of Reading I guess. Here’s my afternoon “read”--Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig.

 

Thank you again, to Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon for hosting the fun! I love whatever I can get done on these–#readathon is so fun!

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Review: The Windsor Knot: A Novel by S.J. Bennett

Embed from Getty Images

First, Happy 95th Birthday, Your Majesty. I know you aren’t one for hugs, but you need one this week, so I’m sending you one.  I know this man is gone now, but it is too soon to leave him out. I’m sure he’s with his sisters, parents, friends, your sister, and all the others now. If only he were by your side today.

Second, Prince Philip’s funeral was absolutely perfect. The music was beautiful and I LOVED his carriage with the Fell ponies and their “pot” of sugar lumps. How my own father would have loved that! But, oh, it was so sad to see the Queen sitting all alone, but I know she would never have tolerated any exceptions being made for her. I read that she supposedly had one of of his white pocket squares in her purse as well as a favorite photo from long ago of the two of them.  That was so sweet. I do hope she gets to see baby August Brooksbank since he lives nearby and have cards from George, Charlotte, Louis, Mia, Savannah, and Isla. That would make any Great-Granny’s day.

My Interest

A new royal novel with the Queen as the sleuth? Yes, please! It’s a series? Even better. I’ve written before about an apparently new genre of famous people turned into Agatha-Christie-types. The Mitford Sisters, mystery writer Josephine Tey, even Eleanor Roosevelt has been made into one. So, why not the Queen?

The Story

A “dine and sleep” with the Queen at Windsor Castle is an honor whether the invitation is as a guest or as a guest who entertains the others. But when one such guest is found dead the next day, does Her Majesty clutch her famous everyday pearls? Indeed not. She survived the Blitz and servicing Army vehicles as well as two difficult daughters-in-law, a fire at this same castle, and now the granddaughter-in-law-from-Hell. She’ll deal with this once she’s had her morning tea and cereal from that famous Tupperware container, walked the corgis and dorgis, ridden her Fell Pony, and taken the first crack at the Red Boxes full of state papers. Once a fictitious and well Prince Philip has been launched with and dispatched to his own interests, then, yes, then, she will get down to the business of solving a murder. One has one’s priorities.

Her Majesty is aided in her regular work as Sovereign by a rotating team of Ladies in Waiting, a Private Secretary (Diana’s brother-in-law held this post for years), an assistant Private Secretary, and more. In her “secondary” work investigating murders, Her Fictitious Majesty is aided by a smart, young British-Nigerian former Army officer, former investment banker, Rozie Oshodi, who comes in for most of the legwork on the case. Whether it is setting up meetings that “never happened” with experts, clandestine meetings with old hands who have formerly helped H.M. with murder cases but are now semi-retired, Rozie handles the gumshoe work while Her Maj does the adding up of clues. Rozie is Watson, to the Queen’s Sherlock Holmes.

This was a fun, well-done book. It was in no way disrespectful to the Queen or the Royal Family. The titles were right, too! One teensy-weensy error: The Privy Council has always (or “long” at least) met standing up. This is not an innovation of Elizabeth II’s. It keeps the meetings short and sweet. More organizations need to adopt this format.

My Verdict

The Windsor Knot: A Novel (Her Majesty Investigates, Book One) by S..J. Bennett

Other posts about Real Life Figures as Detectives

More Real-Life People Turned into Fictional Sleuths

Two Real-Life People Made Over Into Fictional Sleuths

 

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Review: Chasing the Sun by Judy Leigh

My Interest

Judy Leigh has become a must-read author for me. Her books are fun, hopeful, and feature romance after the age of 50.

The Story

Molly is a widow still grieving her Richie when she is smacked in the face with her 70th–70!!!–birthday. She has her cat and a daughter up in Cumbria, but her life is just blah. Nell has just been shocked by her husband of many decades asking for a divorce to marry a younger woman who works at the village coffee shop. Off Nell flees to her sister for comfort. Molly decides what they both need is sun and a change of scenery so she finds an apartment to rent in Spain and the sisters head out to sunshine, beaches, and a new way of life for a few months. 

Travel, new things to learn, Spanish to improve, new foods, and sunshine enliven the two ladies, out of their respective funks. Molly decides to make a short trip on her own to Mexico and there finds something she needed (no spoilers) in a cultural event unlike any other. When Nell joins her things get even more fun.

My Thoughts

This book took a little longer to get into than the others I’ve read by Judy, but it was worth it. The characters of Nell and Molly were both believable. “Life is a celebration,” chef Christoph says at one point and it is very true. I liked the way Molly and Nell each faced their own new realities, and embraced having new experiences and just plain fun along the way.

I always think Judy’s books would make wonderfully fun movies–like Mama Mia in tone, but without the Abba soundtrack. They are made, too, for Julie Walters and I could see Helen Mirren as Molly–so like her character in Calendar Girls.

This story turned out to be so much fun! I highly recommend it

My Verdict

4.0

Note about the editor: Her editor should have caught and corrected an American saying they had spoken to their “solicitor”–a term not used in the USA. The same character also said, “shan’t” which would only be used in America a very jokey tone–probably with a bad British accent. Another American mentions “the hire car.” We call them “rental cars.” These are not a big deal, I just am always amazed at how little attention editors pay to detail anymore.

It was also humorous to hear a Texan enthuse over “Western-style” “horse riding.” Riding is generally done on “horseback” and on a Western saddle in Texas. English saddles and the English style of equitation are used for fox-hunting, dressage, show jumping, polo, and other more formal equestrian events as well as for formal riding lessons. Trail rides are usually Western in the USA–it is very difficult for a novice to do a trail ride on an English saddle. It doesn’t take away from the fun of that wonderful scene with Molly though! It will be a life-long favorite of mine from Judy’s wonderful books!

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Review: The Mountains Sing: A Novel by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

I received an audiobook version of this book free from Net Galley in exchange for a fair review. I make no money off this blog, not even from the links I post to Amazon.

My Interest

Some of my earliest memories involve seeing the Vietnam War on the nightly news. I was born during the Kennedy administration so Vietnam has been a part of the American lexicon my entire life. My parents did not try to distract us when watching the news–instead, they let us join in and talked with us about what we saw. We grew up politically aware and advanced for our age. In the early 1970s, my mother’s cousin went to Vietnam as an officer, resigned his commission, and finished his tour as an enlisted man. Later, he made his career as a psychologist specializing in the care of Vietnam vets with PTSD. Later still, I worked in a library with a large number of Vietnamese employees–all refugees of the war. Knowing a few of their stories fueled my desire to begin learning more about the war in the 1980s.

The Story

What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them–their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

“What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them–their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

In the 1920s what we know as Vietnam was part of the French empire. French culture, architecture, education, Catholicism, and language dominated especially the southern part of the colony. The story features Trần Diệu Lan, a woman born in 1920, and her family is the focus of this multinational look at Vietnamese history. From the land reform movement to the war to beyond. The stories of the different family members “humanize” the struggle to survive under each regime, and throw the forcible taking of wealth, the reduction, the after-effects of Agent Orange, and much more.

My Thoughts

I don’t know why I put this one off so long. It was really engrossing. This is the kind of multi-generational saga I loved before I let social media devour my attention span. Listening to it brought back all the joy of reading those big books of family sagas. I admired the resourcefulness of each generation in this family. There were true heartbreaks, joys, and moments when I wanted to hurt someone–all sings of a very well-told story.

My Verdict

4 Stars

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Review: Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search For Freedom…In Greenwich Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

My Interest

If you’ve read here much, you know I collect all the books on the Roosevelts. Eleanor is a particular favorite of mine. This book promised a look at Eleanor’s often overlooked life apart from Franklin in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. It seemed to promise new information and new insights, so I bought a hardcover copy for my collection and sat down to read it.

The Story

In spite of the premise, the book starts back with the Vanderbilts and New York in the Gilded age–a chapter that ends by mentioning Eleanor’s parents and speculating that “the sparkling events at the Vanderbilt ball would quite naturally have appeared to Anna and Elliott [Roosevelt] to be another moment emblematic of untold promise and beauty ahead for the two of them….” (p.7).  All of Eleanor’s life up to the time of Greenwich Village–the supposed focus of the book–is replayed. All the stories of her sad childhood and early marriage to Franklin are trotted out.

Eleanor, Marion, and Nan source

Eventually, we get to the short chapters on Eleanor’s actual time spent with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, with Esther Lape and Elizabeth Reed–the women who helped Eleanor “find herself” and, in the case of Nan and Marion, who formed a household with her at Val-Kill on the Hyde Park (Springwood) estate. The actual information give was sparse. It was the same with her life after FDR’s death–sparse. The final chapter of her life, living in the same building with David Gurewitsch and his wife had barely more information.

My Thoughts

I really sat there wondering why this book was published. The notes on sources were few and far between. She makes assertions such as these (below) without backing them up with any evidence. (These are just two I selected to illustrate this–there were more.)

“One might even legitimately wonder if FDR ever would have become president were it not for Eleanor’s ongoing and transformative experiences in the Village.” (p. 79)

It was Louis Howe who “made” FDR. Eleanor certainly helped, but most of what she did came after polio. FDR started in politics when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and his ambition to be president came way before that.

“Louis Howe and Franklin joked that the women were ‘she-males,’ a loaded prases that conveyed their belief that Eleanor and her women friends would never be equal to men at home or in politics.”

WOW. Way to read into what was then a contemporary (if very mocking) term for lesbians! Franklin and Howe were far too astute to not see how useful Eleanor and the League of Women Voter’s cofounder Esther Lape, her partner, respected attorney Elizabeth Read, and Head of the Women’s Division of the NY Democratic Party Nancy Cook were to getting the newly enfranchised women voters on their side to think anything of the kind! Nothing is offered as proof of this meaning of the ‘she-male’ phrase.

The tone of the book is that of a biography for the middle grades to junior high school-age students. In fact, I even went back to Amazon to see if I had missed it being designated as such!

Eleanor with Earl Miller source

This book, like nearly all biographies of Eleanor since the “revelation” many years ago of her apparent love affair with Lorena Hickok, mostly catalogs the possible romantic interests of Eleanor after the breakdown of her marriage to FDR. In a book that champions the “New Woman” and the liberation of same-sex couples, it was humorous to see the author fall back on the old chestnut that Earl Miller (ER’s bodyguard), Joe Lash, and David Gurewitsch were all “surrogate sons” because they were younger than Eleanor. The chemistry between ER and Earl is well documented, the other two probably were platonic, but it is the idea that rankles.. Of course, the subservience by the FBI was also mentioned. The FBI did not like Joe Lash because of what they saw as his communist sympathies. We learn so little in this book about Eleanor–that is the shocking take-away.

Eleanor with Dr. David Gurewitsch source

My Verdict

If you know nothing of Eleanor Roosevelt, this is a short, introduction to some aspects of her life background, and times. It is a pleasant, fast, read that can be finished in an afternoon. If you are looking to really know about Eleanor in any way but the most superficial, see Blanche Weissen Cook’s great biography of Eleanor, or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time.

2.5

Eleanor in the Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

 

 

For an account of Eleanor’s life with Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, see The Three Graces of Val-Kill by Emily Herring Wilson.

 

Another book by Jan Jarboe Russell

In spite of my feelings about this book, I would like to read Russell’s book The Train to Crystal City a nonfiction account of the family internment camp featured in the novel Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner.

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Review: The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Court of St. James 1938 to 1940 by Susan Ronald

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My Interest

I have stated many times my life-long interest in the Kennedy family, which I inherited from my parents and my paternal grandmother. I have a substantial library of books on them, and though I no longer buy that many on the family, I found this one on Net Galley and received it in exchange for an honest review. [I do not make any money off this blog. Even my Amazon links are merely for readers’ convenience.]

The Story

Joe Kennedy’s story is well known–father of the famous Kennedy sons: President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General/Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his namesake, Joe. Jr–killed in World War II  He is equally well-known for his daughter Kathleen (“Kick”) who married their heir of Duke of Devonshire, “Billy,” Marquess of Hartington, Eunice who founded The Special Olympics, Pat who married British actor Peter Lawford, Jean married to the head of the Kennedy business empire, Steven Smith, (and mother of the once-notorious William Kennedy Smith) and Rosemary–the daughter he tried so hard to protect, yet agreed to lobotomized. Until the lobotomy, however well-intentioned it might have been, being Rosemary’s father was perhaps Joe’s most admirable role. He loved her so.

Joe Kennedy’s best-known trait was his ruthlessness. This book does an excellent job of showing that. He was also a pioneer in the use of public relations. Americans knew of that big family of Joe and Rose Kennedy before he became head of the new SEC or Ambassador, let alone before Jack became a Senator or President, because of his relentless self-promotion.

Today we would say that the “optics” were good for Joe Kennedy to serve as Ambassador to the “England” [The Court of St. James]–the gregarious big Irish-Catholic American family not only showed America’s love of home and family but also showed that an Irish Catholic was as good as anyone else. Even as late as the 1930s this was not always the case.  The family was interviewed sailing for England–the very young Bobby and Teddy being the stars of the interview. Rosemary and Kick were shown leaving with Rose for their debut at Buckingham Palace–a move that delighted Irish Catholic Americans only a generation or two removed from what they saw as British treachery in Ireland. Equally engaging was the image of little Teddy with his family after receiving his First Holy Communion at the Vatican. Joe Jr, “Kick,” and Jack all became darlings of the aristocratic social round–Kick even bagging one of the most eligible bachelors of her generation. The Irish Catholic Kennedy family were “society,” not servants.

Sadly, Ambassador Joe Kennedy was often more an embarrassment than an asset. In terms of policy,  Joe was more interested in his own growing reputation than in the interests of the administration he represented in London. He allied with “Peace in our time” Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain instead of with Churchill [out of office then] or other politicians more in tune with FDR’s policies. Joe Kennedy was not a man for details. He meddled, badly, took credit for the ideas of others, and used his friendship with Clare Booth Luce of Life Magazine to hype his own views and proposals, including his so-called “Kennedy Plan” for Jewish resettlement. He would later turn defeatist on the UK’s chances of winning the war. FDR’s staff decided he was dangerous and his stint as Ambassador was ended.

My Thoughts

This was an easy, but engaging read. There is some new (new-er) information that has not been seen much before  The author, happily, does not dwell on the entire Kennedy saga which has been told in great depth too many times. She focuses solely on Joe’s professional life (i.e., the building of his fortune through liquor imports, Hollywood, and the stock market) then on his tenure as Ambassador. She adds enough family details to give a good portrait of the man.

My Verdict

3.5

The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court at St. James, 1938 to 1940 by Susan Ronald will be released on August 3rd. It is available now for pre-order.